Day 21 of #RPGaDAY.
Favourite Licensed RPG
Ah, a category with a very clear winner at last!
Marvel Heroic Roleplaying (MHRP) was the sadly short-lived RPG by Margaret Weis Productions set in the Marvel comics universe. Launched in 2012, the game used a new version of the Cortex Plus system (dubbed “Cortex Heroic”) and had fantastic production values and a great initial line-up of supplements.
Like most of the Cortex Plus games (Smallville, Leverage, Firefly), it does a great job of emulating its genre, but MHRP goes further than most. Every element of the game encourages you to play and run the game like it’s leaping straight off the page of a comic – and it’s worth noting that it’s firmly emulating the comic rather than cinematic universe.
The game’s default assumption is that you’re going to play existing Marvel heroes in an existing event (more on Events later), and does a great job of that. In fact, it succeeds better than any game I’ve played at getting people to play along with genre tropes and conventions. Having run the game with a group of mixed roleplaying experience, everyone from the most experienced to the least got into the swing of their character, and we rapidly had a quipping Spider Man, smack-talking Luke Cage, square-jawed Captain America, a Daredevil struggling to keep his secret identity, a Thor being a jovial force of destruction, and a slightly inebriated technobabbling Iron Man.
The character mechanics really encourage acting like the character, with Distinctions providing a mechanical bonus for acting in accordance with short phrases that describe your character (so Captain America Leads By Example, is a Man Out Of Time, and acts as a Sentinel Of Liberty) and the Milestone system giving XP for playing your character in accordance with their goals (so Cap gets XP for mentoring other heroes and leading and creating superhero teams). Superhuman abilities are represented by Power Sets, which importantly all include one or more Limits to represent the narative quirks and problems that come with being a super hero and rewards you for taking a hit for the sake of the story (so Cap’s Vibranium-Alloy Shield power set has the Gear limit, meaning you can lose the shield temporarily to gain a Plot Point).
The game was frequently criticised for lacking a character creation system, but it does have one in there. It’s just that it takes a mechanically loose approach of “assign the traits that you feel match the character/concept”. While that possibly sits uncomfortably for a lot of gamers used to dice rolls and point buy systems, it’s the best approach to letting your heroes be who they are, rather than artificially limiting them due to a points budget. And due to the flexible nature of the system, its entirely possible to have Black Widow, Hawkeye, Hulk and Thor on the same team and all of them be able to contribute in satisfyingly meaningful ways.
There’s a lot more to the system than I can easily explain here, but I’d encourage anyone with an interest in game design and genre emulation to take a look at it. Which is, unfortunately, a little tricky to do…
In early 2013, Margaret Weis Productions announced they wouldn’t be renewing their licence with Marvel for the game due to cost reasons. While sales had been very good for the line, it’s been suggested that Marvel wanted notably more to renew the licence than MWP could feasibly afford. So the game line came to an abrupt haul, with the supplements to the Civil War event only seeing a limited release, and the Annihilation Event book only being released in PDF. As a result, while copies of the core rulebook can easily be picked up from Amazon or other online sources, the supplements are much harder to get your hands on.
Before we sign off on MHRP however, I want to talk about one element of the game in particular – Events.
Rather than publishing individual adventures, MHRP used an “Event” format, where they focused on a particular event in Marvel Comics history. Unfortunately, the line was cancelled before they got the chance to do many of these supplements, but Breakout, Civil War and Annihilation had supplements released to cover them.
The really nice thing about the Event approach was that it was very non-linear. Even Breakout, the mini-Event included in the core rulebook, took a toolkit approach. Civil War and Annihilation took this further, providing the Watcher (the GM) with a wealth of setting information, background on the event, and information on the important factions right upfront. The action of the Events themselves are structured into Scenes and Acts. Scenes are pretty much what you’d expect, notable moments of action, drama or recovery, while Acts divide the Event up into larger structural segments.
So for Civil War, Act 1 is the start of the SHRA movement, tensions developing in the superhuman community, and of course the Stamford tragedy. Act 2 covers the SHRA passing and heroes choosing sides. Act 3 goes onto the more morally dubious acts of Prison 42 and the foundation of the Thunderbolts. Options are included for having PCs on either side of the Civil War, and there’s even options for playing both sides of the War at once, giving a wide range of player experiences and potential for alternative outcomes.
The Scenes themselves are presented as interesting encounters to run for the PCs, but there’s very much an expectation that you’ll modify them to the needs of your game, and that your game may well diverge significantly from the Event as presented in the comics. Support for that kind of “what if?” style of play is a big part of the appeal of the published Events for me, and it’s handled well both in the Acts themselves and the supporting materials.
If nothing else, they’re well worth a look to see how major canon events in an existing fictional setting can be handled well for an RPG.
The Marvel Plot Points blog has a lot of resources for the game, ranging from mini-Event write-ups to variant rules and GMing advice.
The Lost Files of Marvel page on the Exploring Infinity website has a huge range of datafiles for heroes and villains alike, from the Marvel universe and beyond.
And just buy yourself a copy of the game from Amazon or elsewhere. It’s probably the best designed RPG published in the last 10 years, and one every gamer with even the slightest interest in superheroes should have in their collection.